“Midnight Special” is a science-fiction film which was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the man responsible for “Take Shelter” and “Mud”. It stars an impressive ensemble cast including Michael Shannon (“Man of Steel”), Joel Edgerton (“Warrior” & “The Gift”), Kirsten Dunst (“Spider-Man” & “Fargo”), and Adam Driver (“Star Wars : The Force Awakens”), and was selected to compete for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
With these considerations in mind, you would be correct in assuming that I was looking forward to seeing this film, especially given that Edgerton, Dunst, and Driver have recently been involved in critically successful projects, and I personally loved “Take Shelter”. Sadly, my excitement turned to disappointment, then to frustration, and then to anger, as I watched a dull film which completely lacked in purpose.
The film itself is about Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old boy who possesses the power to make his eyes go all shiny. Of course, I’m being slightly demeaning about the nature of the child’s powers, but they really aren’t very interesting. The nature of his ability evolves over the course of the movie at various times simply to serve the plot, so what begins as a weird blue light emitting from his eyes ends up as an arbitrary set of skills which allows him to survive any set of circumstances. He can bring down satellites, predict the future, and even speak other languages, all because he isn’t from this world. It’s basically bullshit, but far be it for me to judge.
The story follows Alton and his father, Roy (Shannon), as they attempt to reach a boring location (it’s just a field) by a certain time for boring bloody reasons. There’s more to it than that, but to go into it would probably give me an ulcer! Basically the film is a glorified road trip which begins as a ‘kidnapping’ and ends with Alton ‘phoning home’ – again, I’m being disparaging, but at least I can get some enjoyment from the film after viewing it by belittling it; I certainly didn’t get any from it as I watched it.
“Midnight Special” clearly takes inspiration from science-fiction adventure films like “E.T.”, with many critics stating that it reminds them of Spielberg’s early work, but that doesn’t mean that it lives up to those lofty heights. If anything, this film marks Nichols’ fall from the heights that he has already reached, because as a movie “Midnight Special” is both mind-numbingly stupid and tremendously tedious.
The characters are completely underdeveloped, so there’s no way that you can possibly feel a connection to them, and there’s also no real reason to care about whether or not they succeed in taking Alton to the field that he so desperately wants to get to. We know that Roy and Alton were part of a religious cult, a cult which believed that Alton was professing the word of God, but we don’t get any insight into the workings of that cult or whether or not it was a nice place to grow up. We know that Roy has ‘kidnapped’ Alton at the start of the film with the help of a childhood friend (Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton), but we aren’t afforded any real time with these kidnappers to understand their relationship or even their backgrounds. Is Lucas a religious man? Does he have a family? Who else has seen Alton’s powers other than the cult? How did Roy kidnap Alton? Why does he think getting Alton to where he wants to go is necessary? What does he think will happen if Alton doesn’t get there by the specified time?
This last question is perhaps the most important, because at least if we as an audience believed that something catastrophic was going to happen if Roy failed then we would care about the journey. But because we don’t really know what would happen in that scenario, (to be honest I don’t even think Nichols knows himself), there’s no way that we can invest in anything that goes on. We can’t be sure that Alton getting to the other world would actually be beneficial for him or for anyone else, so it’s extremely difficult to route for him over the course of the film! There is a suggestion from a cult member who’s interviewed towards the start of the film that there could be some sort of doomsday event, but that isn’t built upon, and it just comes across as the ramblings of a loon!
Alton says ‘hi’.
On a positive note, the performances (other than that of the child lead) are adequate. They aren’t good as such because sadly the script doesn’t allow them to be, but it’s clear that Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton are trying their best to bring emotion to a hollow film. However, this is something that Adam Driver is unable to do, as his character is an unnecessary addition to an unnecessary movie.
When all is said and done, “Midnight Special” is a terrible film. None of the intricacies of the plot are properly fleshed out, and the ‘action’ that occurs over the course of the movie does nothing to make this issue less transparent. The performances are okay, as should be expected from such a capable cast, but this doesn’t elevate the film because the story is ridiculous and there’s absolutely no worthwhile pay-off. It’s a pointless, boring, waste of time, and there’s nothing significantly positive to be said about it.